1nce a twit, now gr8

Judith Lewis is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about technology and environmental issues. She is a contributing editor to High Country News.

‘World Hello ... I’m a 22-year-old college student living in Iran. I’m going to post as much as I can until the police find my satellite connect.”

The student identified himself as Abdul-Azim Mohammed. He called his new Twitter account TehranElection and began posting before dawn on Sunday morning in Iran. People had started gathering in the streets, he wrote, to protest an election they believed had been stolen. His uncle claimed to have seen authorities burning ballots. Television was airing a cooking show.

“I have a satellite dish that I normally keep in my basement cause they are illegal,” he posted in a series of tweets a few minutes later, “and only use it when the government cuts off the internet ... I’m waiting for my other friends to report what is going on across the country, and will relay info to Twitter.”

Half a world away, an uncounted number of English speakers waited with him.


Twitter, the global short-messaging service turned nanoblog turned social network, is the most bashed technology platform to come along. In its three-year existence, it has irritated sophisticates with its bothersome chatter and moved sociologists to label it a symptom of narcissistic youth. Musician John Mayer declared it “just one step away from posting pictures of your poop” after Jennifer Aniston reportedly dumped him for compulsive Twittering. “The Daily Show” presented Samantha Bee unable to tear herself away from Twitter to focus on an interview with Jon Stewart.

At dinner parties, the very mention of Twitter, or even its more lumbering cousin, Facebook, is likely to provoke someone at the table to mime the gagging reflex. “Twitter hate,” wrote tech blogger Robert Scoble, he of 94,000-plus followers, “is the new black.”

To be fair, Twitter is mostly silly. In my own unsteady Twitter life, I have followed (and sometimes, nervously, dropped) friends who tweeted the detailed results of their cake-and-cobbler baking, people whose relentless self-congratulations tweeted at a loneliness so deep it was painful to witness, fellow writers who perfunctorily summarized their lives in 140-character bursts, as if someone had threatened to fine them if they refused. The tweets of more advanced Twitterers are barely decipherable, so riddled are they with “re-tweets” (abbreviated as “RT,” a forwarding of someone else’s tweet), @ signs and “hashtags” (the # sign, used to mark a keyword).

But despite its poor signal-to-noise ratio, Twitter distinguished itself as meaningful long ago to anyone who was paying attention. Barack Obama’s campaign exploited Twitter in the spring of 2007, a little more than a year after the service launched, so supporters could follow the candidate’s schedule. During the 2007 California wildfire season, first responders and displaced families alike Twittered their whereabouts and evacuation routes. Many hold-out reporters joined the Twitter fold in December when Mike Wilson, a passenger on Continental Airlines Flight 737, fired off expletive-laced tweets as his plane skidded off the runway at the Denver airport.

Twitter hasn’t always been up to the task: The size of the network increases exponentially with every user, and founders Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone had trouble scaling it up. Many changes had to be made to its hardware and software before it could accommodate the rapid-fire flow of billions of messages without crashing.

But social networks “don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring,” as writer and tech expert Clay Shirky noted recently, and Twitter has finally become a real yawn, technologically speaking. Then this spring, it found a new life as the most resilient source of news in the world.

Tweets can be sent from cellphones, smart phones, computers and anonymizing websites; they can bob and weave around filters, firewalls and censors. The routes tweets follow through the ether were put there so that no line of inane drivel would drop out during its nanosecond travels. Those routes then became pathways of international necessity.

Over the last weekend, Twitter was where TehranBureau relayed coordinates for assemblies; it was where trusted users filtered bad information from good. Tweets led to pictures of Mir-Hossein Mousavi mingling in the crowd after the news media reported he was under house arrest, they exposed traps laid by authorities, they linked to a moving video of protesters aiding a fallen policeman whose motorbike had burst into flames -- a priceless record of the complex truths that prevail in a society that so perplexes outsiders.


As a crowning validation, the U.S. State Department, realizing that Twitterers were communicating vital information from postelection Iran, asked the people at NTT America, Twitter’s network provider, to move a planned maintenance outage to the quiet hours of the Iranian night as opposed to the California one. They obliged.

Yes, Twitter has its restraints, among them its 140-character limit to posts. But as one Twitterer observed in a frequently re-tweeted message: “140 characters is a novel when you’re being shot at.”

It’s important not to get carried away here. There is no revolution being Twitterized, as some have reported, only a possible desire for one. There is certainly no direct line from Twitter to democracy. But Twitter is, by its very nature and architecture, destined to at least democratize information: Google and Yahoo executives can help Chinese authorities censor and rout out opponents with only minor public relations damage. But if Twitter betrays its base of millions, it ceases to exist.

“The TV is still playing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad victory clips,” wrote TehranElection on June 14 at 5:25 a.m., one hour after he created his Twitter account. And then, 19 minutes later, “I have to shut down for a bit, the police are looking for satellites.” His feed ends there, but I continue to follow it with hope, expecting that I, and his 3,756 other followers, will hear something soon.